If you care about art, you are obliged to loathe the film “The Monuments Men,” a star-studded history drama that purports to tell the story of American efforts to rescue and repatriate art stolen by the Nazis in World War II. The film doesn’t lapse occasionally into cliché, it is grounded in cliché, woven of cliché and consists of nothing but cliché. Director, producer and screenplay co-author George Clooney may believe he is serving art, but “Monuments Men” serves only cliché, and cliché is the enemy of art.
“Monuments Men” is so bad I will save you the trouble and expense of seeing it with the following summary. To make the film a bit more coherent, I’ve substituted the word “puppies” for art.
Over in Europe, the Second World War is raging, and Clooney is very worried about the puppies. He takes this concern directly to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whom we recognize from the jaunty angle of his cigarette holder. He explains to the President of the United States the basics of the allied invasion of Germany. He uses a big map with arrows on it, with the Russians coming in from the east, and the allies moving in from France and Italy. Caught in the middle of these armies are a whole lot of puppies. Clooney says he doesn’t want to live in a world without puppies.
Roosevelt tells Clooney to go save the puppies and there ensue several derivative scenes in which Clooney rounds up a rag-tag gang of misfit puppy lovers who all agree to help him return the puppies to their rightful owners. But when they finally arrive on the beaches of Normandy, a grizzled commander scorns their noble puppy quest, with a speech that goes something like this: “There’s a war on out there and boys are dying, and I’ll be damned if I have to write one more letter to one more mother telling her that her boy died to save some damn puppies.”
This isn’t going to be easy, but nothing worth doing ever is. There follows a lot more derivative material, with some stock buddy-film comic scenes thrown in, and some stock bathos scenes of young men dying. There are two particularly cute puppies who help structure the rest of the film, and — spoiler alert — Germany loses the war and both puppies are rescued just in time from the mean old Russians who, when it comes to puppies, are almost as bad as the Germans.
It’s dangerous to talk of art — the purpose, ideals and spiritual value of art — in general terms. But art can safely be defined in the negative, as the opposite cliché. Thus: Cliché deadens our sensibilities, art refines them; cliché shuts down thinking, art opens it up; cliché is lazy, art is ambitious; cliché affirms our unconsidered, reflexive understanding, while for the past two centuries, art has generally challenged it.
The problem with Hollywood is that it is both in awe of and intimidated by art, and when mediocre Hollywood directors make films about music, dance or art, they almost always lapse more deeply into cliché than directors who prefer to tell stories about things they know, like extraterrestrials, mobsters, boxers, con artists and porn stars.
Throughout the film we are given multiple reassurances that art is very important and a high ideal of humanity, and represents our most noble aspirations and teaches us to be human and lots of similar utterly meaningless blather — every word that comes out of Clooney’s mouth, especially in his tedious and risible voiceovers, is a cliché. But to get to the fundamental dumbness of Clooney’s film, we again need to use the puppy substitution: Hitler, he tells us, hates puppies, which is why he is rounding up all the puppies and keeping them for himself. This doesn’t make any sense, does it?
The problem here is Clooney’s magical belief in the art object, as if its value inheres in the physical object itself, not our relation to it. Hitler loved art, and he loved puppies too. But it was the purposes to which he put art that distinguishes his love of art from, say, the way people of faith revere the Ghent altar piece. Art has been used in the service of barbarity and civilization alike, it has bolstered the cause of separatists and nationalists, democrats and authoritarians, religious zealots and ecumenical pluralists, anarchists, pacifists, communists, fascists and Hollywood producers.
Any meaningful film about art must address our relationship to art, rather than blithely fetishize the objects themselves. But there isn’t one authentic scene about art in this entire film. Whenever Clooney has to engage with art, we seem him bustling around it busily, fluttering in a comically meaningless way, as if he’s checking to see the patina is still on the statues and the paint hasn’t flaked off the canvass.
It’s time to stop giving Hollywood a pass when it comes to this kind of dreck. Clooney isn’t doing art a service by appropriating, distorting and trivializing the story of the real “Monuments Men,” whose service was commendable. Clooney uses this story to assert his own ideology, a farrago of Hollywood banalities that align remarkably well with standard-issue beliefs about capitalism, freedom and America. Struggle and you will succeed; everyone can rise above their demons; teamwork will lead to success; faith in yourself is the key to everything.
And of course: America über alles! Which is the only message one can take from a ridiculous scene near the end of the film when the Monuments Men apparently take time away from saving puppies to hang an American flag above a salt mine, just to poke a stick in the eye of those notorious puppy wranglers, the Russians. Norman Rockwell wouldn’t touch this slop.
Too many respectable institutions have already signed on to use this film to advance their own agendas. There are lectures and panel discussions planned around the country, from Yale University to Kent State. Museums are piling on too. Even the National Gallery is joining in: From Tuesday to Sept. 1, the gallery will host an exhibition of photographs and documents tied to the “Monuments Men” designed to build on interest generated by the film.
Et tu, Brute? Has anyone from the National Gallery even seen this wretched piece of drivel, which stands antipodal to the values of art? Reaching out to new audiences is one thing. But this smacks of collaboration with the enemy.